On a day Penn State had their way with Illinois in a Big Ten opening 35-7 victory, it was senior linebacker Michael Mauti leading the charge. On Sunday Mauti was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week.
Mauti recorded six tackles, half of a sack and turned two interceptions against Illinois. Mauti’s first interception at the goal line toward the end of the first half was nearly returned the length of the field for a Penn State touchdown, but Mauti’s school record 99-yard return fell just shy of the end zone. Despite the importance of the play, preserving a shutout at the end of the first half and keeping Illinois from taking any momentum in to the half, Mauti was not happy with not scoring on the play.
“Yeah, 99 yards without a touchdown, that one’s going to hurt,” Mauti said.
Penn State was given one additional second before the half following Mauti’s lengthy return. Rather than go for a short touchdown, Bill O’Brien sent the field goal team out for a tough angle short field goal by Sam Ficken. A poor snap and shaky protection led to a blocked field goal to end the half.
“That’s going to haunt my dreams, especially because we didn’t get any points out of it,” Mauti said.
Mauti has been the clear vocal and inspirational leader for Penn State in a time of need. Perhaps it is an act of destiny that Mauti is on this team at this time, when NCAA sanctions were dropped like an anvil on the program and the national perception of the university has been placed under a dark cloud. Mauti may be the perfect player to be in this program right now.
The Mauti legacy at Penn State is well documented. He is not the first Mauti to play for Penn State. Perhaps he will not be the last. Mauti has overcome much more in his time in State College, including working back from a pair of devastating knee injuries each of the past two seasons. Mauti’s character will never be questioned after working hard to rehab his knees not once, but twice and to come back to play at the level he has shown so far this season.
To say Mauti understands what the ideals of Penn State football are supposed to be would be an understatement. He lives the ideals on a weekly basis by speaking on behalf of the team and backing it up by leading by example.
Mauti knew the significance of beating Illinois in the Big Ten opener, after the Illini sent coaches to Penn State’s campus once the NCAA lifted recruiting restrictions tied to Penn State players as part of the heavy sanctions. Few spoke publicly about how it did not sit well with the Penn State program, but Mauti was not necessarily quiet about it. After playing a huge role in Penn State’s conference opening win at Illinois, Mauti reflected on how important the win was for the program.
“Obviously having to play against these guys, it was sweet,” Mauti said. “We haven’t forgotten what happened this summer. Yeah, to be honest with you, we had that in the back of our minds, and that kept us going.”
With no postseason possible for Penn State, O’Brien has said the players are focused on making the most of the opportunities they have in the regular season. That includes being eligible to win a Big Ten Leaders Division championship, despite not being able to play in the Big Ten championship game.
“Every game is just as important as the other one,” Mauti said. “We only have a fixed number of games, so we’re going to be just as rowdy and just as jacked up for every game.”
Mauti even has the respect of players on Penn State’s offense, including guard John Urschel.
“He’s a physical player but I’d say the biggest thing is just his energy,” said Urschel. “He’s one of the most energetic players I’ve ever seen. You look at him out there, he’s running around making plays, he’s jumping around just everywhere for four quarters.”
To paraphrase a recurring line from the recent Batman Dark Knight cinematic trilogy, Mauti is not the leader Penn State has deserved, but he is clearly the leader Penn State needs.
Kevin is a national college football writer for quadrust.com and the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Submit your mailbag questions via Tumblr. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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